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A Door Left Ajar in 'Marvin's Room'

By David Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 5, 1997

Other than memories, I don't have a lot to show for my brief friendship with playwright Scott McPherson. In fact, I have only two tangible things to remind me of him -- a theater program for "Marvin's Room," the extraordinary play he wrote before succumbing to AIDS in 1992 at the age of 33, and a political button he gave me.

The memories are persistent, though. The other night I caught a screening of the movie version of "Marvin's Room," which opens Friday. Although the film is studded with stars -- Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Leonardo diCaprio -- I found myself thinking about Scott all the time.

The screenplay was one of the last pieces he completed, before illness became his full-time occupation and he started referring to himself, jokingly, as a "playwrit."

After the screening I went home, dug out the button from a bureau drawer and located the theater program in a file cabinet. The button reads "CURE AIDS NOW." It was designed by McPherson's companion and lover, an editorial cartoonist named Daniel Sotomayor, who died nine months before him, also of complications from AIDS.

In the last year of their lives together, McPherson had devoted a lot of his time to taking care of Sotomayor -- when Sotomayor wasn't taking care of McPherson, that is. It all depended on whose health was waxing or waning at the moment, who was in the hospital and who wasn't. For a while, the balance seesawed back and forth.

The program is from the Hartford Stage Company's production of "Marvin's Room," where I initially encountered the play that would later triumph off-Broadway and, after that, on a national tour. In its pages, McPherson disclosed that he, Sotomayor and a number of their friends had AIDS. "We all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick," he wrote. "At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, of caring for one another. By most we are thought of as dying. But as dying becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs."

"Marvin's Room" isn't an AIDS play (or movie) per se, although it resonates deeply in an era of AIDS. The heroine, a middle-aged woman named Bessie, actually has leukemia and has been informed by her doctor that a bone marrow transplant is advisable. Bessie has spent most of her adult life caring for her bedridden father, Marvin, a near-vegetable whose favorite diversion is sucking the numbers off Yahtzee dice, and her Aunt Ruth, a flibbertigibbet who figures her crippling back pains are God's way of teaching her "how to dress without standing up."

When Bessie's long-estranged sister, Lee, and Lee's two young sons come for a visit, the hope is that one of them will be able to provide the matching bone marrow that will prolong Bessie's beleaguered life. But nothing is resolved in a tidy, sentimental fashion. "Marvin's Room" is, in fact, about how we manage to keep on keeping on, when there are no happy endings to our plight. And yet for all that, it is often crazily, warmly, humanly, improbably funny! McPherson struck a tone -- absurdism shot through with compassion -- that was unique and perfectly suited to the distemper of the times.

Toward the end of the play, the two sisters talk about love, and Bessie marvels at how much she's had in her life. Lee misunderstands her at first. Bessie, it seems, is not talking about the love she's received from Marvin and silly Aunt Ruth. She's talking about the love she has been able to give them. "I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much," she explains. "I am so lucky to have loved so much. I am so lucky."

In the summer of 1991 I went to Chicago to interview Scott. He was thin, although not yet wasted, still boyishly good-looking, with a 100-watt smile that could knock you out. He and Sotomayor lived in a working-class neighborhood with a rambunctious dog and a talkative parrot. Their apartment was furnished in a style best described as post-grad. The large side garden had a wishing well in it -- but not a real one. It was a prop. It had a bottom and sat on the ground, like a picnic table or a chaise longue. You couldn't throw a coin into it and make a wish.

Scott was gentle, candid, curiously uncomplicated about what had surely become a complicated existence, and refreshingly modest about the play he had written. He had no high-flown theories, no self-promoting mumbo jumbo with which to explain himself. He was even a little embarrassed to hear "Marvin's Room" referred to as "art." The play's unique tone, that commingling of deep feeling and black humor, was, he said, merely a consequence of his inability to keep the laughs going. He wrote funny until his energy flagged. Then, he wrote serious.

I remember coming away thinking that the play must have written itself, although I knew better. Plays don't write themselves. People do, and it's a laborious undertaking. Still, something mysterious also seemed to be at work, something beyond a playwright's conscious volition. Here he'd imagined this drama about the heartaches and the rewards of a caretaker who discovers that she desperately needs care herself. Once he wrote it, he began living it.

The play seemed to be articulating, in advance, what would be the truth of his all-too-brief life. It's almost as if his creative self was acknowledging his destiny, before his rational self had fully absorbed it. As Sotomayor later said to me, "I don't know what's coming full circle here. Is Scotty meeting his play or is the play meeting him?"

Late in 1991, Scott went to New York for the off-Broadway opening of "Marvin's Room," but he wasn't in very good shape by then. Danny came with him, and he was even worse off. They huddled in the front row of the Playwrights' Horizons, Danny wrapped in an overcoat, and shivered through the performance.

We were set to have lunch the following day, but Danny was too ill to leave the hotel -- a high-ceilinged, fairly unattractive suite, with a vintage TV blaring in the background. He'd lost most of his hair to chemotherapy and his eyes had a glassy shine to them and seemed too large for his face, as often happens when the skin has begun to pull tight over the skull.

We took a cab to the restaurant, because Scott couldn't walk long distances. And we talked about the screenplay of "Marvin's Room" and some of the other works he intended to write in the future, although in retrospect, I don't see how the talk could have focused on the future. There wasn't too much of it left for him. He was happy, because the reviews for the play had been good. Mostly, he was worried about Danny. After lunch I gave him a hug and said something wholly inadequate like "Take care of yourself." I never saw him again.

While leaving the screening room with a friend, I reflected on the sadness of lives cut short. Who knows what other works Scott McPherson might have written? What insights he had still to share? And my friend replied that maybe "Marvin's Room" was what Scott had to tell the world and that, once he had made his contribution, he was free to move on. I don't necessarily subscribe to that kind of new age think ing -- but it's comforting.

I am probably too bound up with my own experience of the play and playwright to be much of a judge of the movie. There's no faulting Diane Keaton's radiant gallantry as Bessie, but the hollow-eyed, waif-thin Laura Esterman, who created the role onstage, has marked it forever for me. I loved Gwen Verdon as silly Aunt Ruth, but I don't know if there's much to be gained by showing Marvin (a gummy Hume Cronyn), who was an evocative offstage presence -- a childish gurgle, really -- in the play. Nonetheless, I welcome the film. It will help keep McPherson's memory alive.

Granted, the Goodman and the Victory Garden theaters in Chicago, which developed the first production of "Marvin's Room," have established an annual playwriting award to perpetuate his name. But awards take on a certain impersonality over the years. How many people actually remember Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony is named?

Film isn't permanent, but it's a lot more permanent than the theater. By their very nature, stage productions are will-o'-the-wisps -- here today, gone today. The movie will preserve McPherson's unique vision -- one that will remain painfully pertinent, I suspect, long after a cure for AIDS has been found. In the end, AIDS will prove to have been a temporary phenomenon in the history of mankind, but living and dying and caring are timeless concerns.

As I said, after the screening I went home and fished around in the jewelry case where I keep my cuff links, tuxedo studs and an old wristwatch that belonged to my grandfather. There was the AIDS button. A lot of the theater memorabilia I have saved over the years has yellowed terribly. Some of it has begun to fritter into pieces. The "Marvin's Room" program was still in good condition, though.

I looked at them both for a while. Then I put them back in their places. They're only things, I know, but I intend to hang on to them for a while longer.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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